Preaching to the Deserted

Not many white people witness Reverend Tom Neely going about his work. Those who do most likely are cops, EMTs, social workers, or maybe passing bus drivers. Most black people won’t cross paths with Neely, either. Given the means, they’ve left the neighborhood around 39th and Prospect, repeating a migration started by middle-class whites decades ago. It’s the poor, those working or hustling, who are left behind. They are the people Neely counts as his clients.

On and off since January, Neely has been coming to 39th and Prospect from his home near 64th and Paseo. In the morning, he’ll park his beat-up Toyota in front of Leslie Barton’s property near the check-cashing business on the northeast corner. That operation, and the combination liquor store and grocery pantry across the street, are the only businesses at the intersection.

Barton’s single-story building has seen better days. At one time he operated a clothing store out of it; now it mainly serves as a vacant backdrop to the pay phone perched in front of it. But his property is a sight better than the burned-out structure on the northwest corner. Come nightfall, Neely says, crackheads will slide back behind the plastic tarps draped over what once were storefront windows and light their pipes before prowling the neighborhood.

Until then, Barton will sit in a chair in front of his building, acknowledging people driving by with a high, straight-arm wave, protecting what has been his for 15 years. He got a weekend break from guard duty a few weeks ago when the Move-Up campaign held a highly publicized around-the-clock vigil at the intersection, temporarily driving away the bad element. But even with such community action, responsibility for keeping an eye out, Barton says, remains where it’s always been: with property owners. Insurance can’t be had, he says. Still, whether it’s hope or the pursuit of status, Barton is thinking about buying the adjoining lot. For a few hundred bucks in back taxes, it could be his. “I started with nothing, never started with a head start,” he says.

Barton credits Neely with bringing some positive influence to the area. As payback, Barton lets Neely hang one of his paintings on the outside of Barton’s building. Neely hopes for a sale to help meet expenses for his work on the street. Neely’s associate’s degree in art reflects his creativity and complements his work as assistant minister at Jackson Free Will Baptist Church on East 19th. His approach to flock-tending is low-key. He’ll approach people standing at the bus shelters with a slow, back-on-his-heel walk, gently revealing a disarming smile as he gets closer. Despite the preacher’s collar and big cross hanging from his neck, Neely’s purpose seems to come from large, sad eyes that appear magnified by intensity.

“I make like I’m doing some good,” Neely says. “I’ve always got a good, kind word of encouragement.”

But it goes beyond that. Neely carries voter registration cards, urging people to exercise their power at the polls. It’s the mix of church and politics familiar to the African-American community.

For the young, a generation or two removed, Neely will try to chill suspicions with rhyme:

My name is Rev. Tommy T,

I believe in God,

I’m tryin’ to help some brothers stay out of the penitentiary.

My name is Rev. Tommy T,

I believe in God,

Snitchin’ ain’t part of the game, snitchin’ ain’t part of the game.

From there, Neely will urge the youngsters to stay in school. And if that remark lands nowhere, he’ll push a little harder. “I tell them there’s three alternatives: graveyard, penitentiary, or somebody out here going to kill you. You know, freedom is worth something.”

To make that point, Neely has brought in some OGs. Wisdom from old gangsters carries weight in a place where drug dealers, addicts, hookers, and thieves saunter out into the night with offers of temporary pain relief and quick cash. Neely calls his OGs — he says he has 17 — “street counselors” who help keep trouble to a minimum and try to convince kids to avoid easy temptations.

“I do it ’cause I like it, you know,” says Baron Hemphill, one of Neely’s counselors. “I like it. I like to let them know that it’s a different way if somebody cares, somebody looking out for you. And that you can do something different.”

Hemphill, 42, did a 10-year stretch for manslaughter. “I was pressed to do this,” he says of his work with Neely. “After you get to talking to them, I tell them, ‘You can’t keep doing wrong without feeling something sooner or later.'”

Like Neely, Hemphill will sometimes help people navigate the system, whether it’s seeking government benefits due them or attempting to ease a bind through better legal representation or getting a stiff bond lowered with a guarantee that the person will appear in court.

“If it involves something and the average individual doesn’t know how to go about taking care of it — you know, finding a remedy for it — I may know about it,” says Hemphill. “I may give my services to them, no charge, just doing it from the heart.”

Eighteen-year-old Sigma Azrael is suspicious of such goodwill talk, especially coming from Neely. Azrael lives with his uncle up the block from Barton’s building. He came to Kansas City four years ago from California after his mother was murdered and his father moved overseas. The killer has never been found. Azrael says he began the thug life at 14.

“I been there, done that,” he says. “It was an opportunity to rebel, get money, have clout, have power at a young age.” He hung around the Crips because blue was his favorite color. He stole, shoplifting mostly. Store clerks didn’t pay much attention because he looked closer to 10 than 14. “I learned to adapt and manipulate, fakin’ it until you make it,” Azrael says. For a while he did the thrill, remembering how a $10 rock of crack could get him a car for a few hours and easy sex. Still, the game people learn at the intersection of 39th and Prospect is “just image, just a fact of life anywhere. Got gangs, got drugs, got guns. There’s always somebody willing to break the rules.”

Azrael stopped himself. He says it was enlightenment, and a willingness to listen to the OGs. “They keep it real. Tell you the good and the bad.” His desire for something different made it stick. These days, Azrael hangs out at the Full Employment Council center near 18th and Paseo, taking GED classes, nurturing his interests in history, poetry, music, and physics. Except for catching the bus, he doesn’t linger much at 39th and Prospect. “I’m not doin’ any dirt; I can’t get hurt,” he says.

Azrael and Neely have yet to connect. He scoffs at Neely’s effort to register voters. “It’s more of a problem than just voting,” he says. And perhaps it’s the pain of losing his mother that’s speaking when Azrael says, “How can you talk about saving souls if you can’t save someone’s life?”

If Azrael knew Neely’s history he might not have needed to ask.

In 1966, Neely wasn’t much older than Azrael when he returned from Vietnam. Questions about black soldiers dying in Southeast Asia began to gnaw at him. Sorrow over his mother’s death while he was gone also burdened him. He had been in the Air Force since 1960, out of touch with his people’s struggle in his hometown. But Leon Jordan was there at Union Station when he got off the train.

The Freedom Inc. founder was leading the fight for a public-accommodations ordinance to bring down segregationist business practices in Kansas City. Since starting Freedom in 1962, Jordan had organized the black wards into a potent election force, slowly wresting control away from the mob-influenced political factions of northeast Kansas City. Jordan took Neely under his wing. “I became the vice president of Freedom and was the youngest person on the board,” says Neely.

He went on to be elected 3rd Ward Democratic Committeeman and to score a plum patronage job as a Jackson County constable. As president of Freedom’s Young Adult Council, Neely worked with Bernard Powell’s SAC-20 group. Powell’s style was less political and more into tapping into economic resources, says former SAC-20 leader and longtime Neely friend Lee Bohannon.

“There were a lot of rallies and issues that came up where we crossed paths (with Freedom),” says Bohannon.

Neely formulated many of Freedom’s policies. One was an angry response when six black men were killed during Kansas City’s 1968 riot. Neely says he insisted that Freedom go against then-Governor Warren Hearnes for sending in the National Guard. “It was the first time in the history of the city that Freedom split a ticket. We voted for the Republican candidate.”

In 1970, Jordan was gunned down in front of the Green Duck tavern at 25th and Prospect. The murder remains unsolved. Jordan’s death affected Neely, but he remained a leader in Freedom throughout most of the ’70s. In 1973, he helped form the Street Academy, an outreach program using community counselors to attract disadvantaged youth into education and job training courses. Five years later, Neely moved to Houston, following his love for a woman. A year later, 1979, Powell was assassinated and SAC-20 lost its spark. In 1990, Neely returned to KC, divorced and a man of God.

“Tom was always a deep-thinking type of person,” Bohannon says of Neely’s turn to the ministry. “He took on the role of a permanent leader. His major strength is on the street.”

While God has come to Neely, politics never left. That’s evident as he preaches the good word and registers voters. And he watches Freedom from a distance. To Neely, it is a different organization than the one he helped guide. Now it’s more “middle class and bourgeoisie.” But he does credit current Freedom President Mark Bryant, an attorney, with making the organization more open.

“I’m trying to work with him to create some unity in our community,” says Neely. “Usually you only get 10 percent of the people voting in the black community. Back when I was organizing, you had upwards of 50 to 60 percent.”

Neely chides Freedom for “being afraid to knock on doors” and for not educating people politically. As an alternative, he has formed a group called Truth Inc. “We’re going to create some excitement; that way more folks come out to vote.” Yet Neely knows he is considered a relic of the 1960s. “That’s a good place to be. At least we were active.”

The Freedom of Neely’s day did more than just field and endorse candidates and take money in the process. Neely says the organization took positions on issues, and he doesn’t understand why Freedom won’t, for example, take a stand on the death penalty. “If they came out for a moratorium on the death penalty, the governor would listen,” he says. “There’s more black folk in the penitentiary than they realize. (Prison-building) is economic development for the rural areas.”

While expressing admiration and respect for Neely, Bryant is irked by Neely’s comments about Freedom. “If Tom wants Freedom to take a stand, he should come to a board meeting” and make the argument, Bryant says.

Freedom’s main mission is to encourage the election of candidates “sensitive to the needs of the inner city,” Bryant says. “Ours is not a hard science, it’s political science. There’s always a need to register voters, always a need to increase our turnout on election day. I disagree we are in the depths of depression. We have the unity to have an effective political voice.”

Neely is seeking the same. He networks, seeking connections in the corporate world to help fund his street-counselor program. He frequents Maxine’s Fine Foods on Benton Boulevard, a hangout for movers and shakers in the black community. He volunteers for certain candidates running in the November election, and he fights the death penalty. He freelances his ministry, seeking donations to bring God’s attention to weddings and funerals. And he continues walking the street, making some wonder about his agenda.

“I think he’s formulating one,” says Bohannon. “But it takes time to weed your way through this society now. Confrontation doesn’t produce the immediate results, but I wouldn’t rule it out. There’s been progress, but far too little.”

Reverend Tom Neely couldn’t agree more.

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